Are you an athlete, a musician or just somebody who wants to operate at your very best level in life? Loganholme Sport Psychologist Abra Garfield explains some of the principles and keys to enhancing your performance and achieving your goals …
My approach to working with sports people is focused on a few important principle targets for success. The first is enjoyment and flow. I believe the experiential qualities of sport keep us motivated and involved. The emotional drive comes from the feeling of performing when everything is just clicking.
The next target is confidence, found through improvement/effort. I am a big believer in attention skills as a way to promote the flow experiences and increase mental toughness.
Finally, I take a holistic individualised approach to the person rather than the problem. I feel this approach leads to long-term mental toughness and solutions. People come to me to solve specific issues, which are stopping them from achieving greatness and making changes. I draw on a mix of solution-focused and holistic approaches when working with people on performance issues, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as well as Mindfulness-based approaches, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) when working with athletes or performers.
Developing Mental Toughness
- Focus – Attention and focus is a very critical determinate of peak performance. Being in the present moment, having well-tuned self-awareness, and keeping a task-focused attention are fundamental targets of establishing mental toughness.
- Mental Toughness Skills – These include controlling the controllables; self-talk; imagery; emotion regulation strategies; mental rehearsal and routines. Mental Skills training can be focused on emotions (eg Michael Phelps listens to music before competing to pump him up), attention, thoughts, and behaviours (Raphael Nadal picks his wedgy before his serve!).
- Composure, mindfulness and self-belief to combat nerves – Staying calm and composed, being mindful and holding strong self-belief in abilities and training leads to reduced nerves before and during competition. Nerves waste valuable energy, lock up the body, reduce creativity, enjoyment and adaptability, and lead to distraction and fear. Staying calm, using mindfulness and having self-belief are paramount to managing anxiety. Ideally, we learn to love this feeling and it signals we are ready!
- Confidence – Perhaps you have lost some confidence or never really had a strong foundation of confidence. A sport psychologist can help you explore your confidence and provide ways to increase your belief in yourself. Much of confidence and self-belief comes from improvement and being able to see skills develop.
- Comfort zone – If we stay in our comfort zone with training and practice then it is very hard to cope with uncomfortable situations in competition. Part of building mental toughness is being willing to step out of your comfort zone in training to learn to handle performing under stress and pressure. This acts to inoculate you from competition stressors and represents hardest training (setting up situations in training that are harder than what will be experienced in competition).
- Attitude – Having a plan for the attitude we want to have at training and in competition can be a great way to stay tough and positive when things don’t go to plan or if distraction is inevitable. Our attitude can be like a compass leading our attention, to keep us task focused, in a positive motivational state and strengthening our resilience to adversity. For instance, an attitude of flexibility and adaptation helps athletes to plan for uncertainty and take on challenges in a pro-active way.
Training, Practice and Improvement
- Goal setting – If people do not have a workable approach to goal setting, and a clear timeline/plan to achieve targets, the goal getting process may not be present. It is important in preparing for competition to set clear, controllable goals. Goals like winning, or scoring a certain number of points or tackles, can lead to disappointment as they are out of our control. Setting effort and process goals can improve reflection and planning for improvement. Goal setting brings focus to mastery and improvement, and away from winning and being the best.
- Replicating pressure and hardest training – Being creative in making training tough, and imitating the pressure of competition, can be a great way to inoculate people from pressure in competition. There are many ways to increase pressure on skill execution and increase difficulty in training to increase the psychological stress that people must execute skills in. A sport psychologist can assist coaches and sportspeople to achieve quality hardest training. Tiger Woods’ father used to blow a bullhorn and roll objects across the green while Tiger putted, at age 8!
- Motivation and effort (quality strategies) – Having a strong drive to excel in sport and music, and enjoying the process is crucial to longevity and improvement of performance. Some people are born driven for excellence, while others must learn and grow into a motivational process that works for them. Essentially, motivation leads to effort and creativity in making sure this effort is used in the highest quality way. This is because there are many ways to improve – but time is very limited. So we need a high level of effort input and the right activities for improvement. Maintaining motivation when things are not going well or when results do not go your way is a big challenge.
- Event prep and planning, anticipating mental and physical challenges – Sitting down a month, week or day ahead of a competition and doing some planning work can significantly contribute to achieving your peak performance. Event planning involves looking at the competition environment and schedule, and anticipating potential challenges throughout the day. These may be physical, psychological or environmental challenges. Once these are flagged, appropriate measures and strategies can be put in place to minimise the risk of disturbing performance.
- Performance profiling – This involves breaking down performance in your sport, and looking at how these elements can be grouped. Then you can use a rating system to assess your skill level in each area of performance, as well as how important it is to you to succeed. This process helps to establish clear communication, and simplifies a very confusing topic: performance, and leads to targeted goal setting for improvement.
Dealing with Setbacks and Transitions
- Performance slumps – Sometimes we have dips in performance, which can be difficult on our emotions, motivation, thinking and attitude – especially if trying to deal with it on a personal level has not helped. These slumps are hard to predict and can happen at any time in a sportsperson’s career. Sometimes pressures in other parts of life, injuries and transitions can cause them. Sport psychologists are trained to assess and treat performance slumps through psychological strategies. Don’t let a slump in performance lead to loss of enjoyment and self-belief!
- Choking and the yips – Choking under pressure and chronic choking under pressure, present severe performance slumps where expert skills, which have been practiced until they are automatic become disrupted due to pressure and psychological factors. This can be very difficult to cope with and can lead to serious performance deficits, which may jeopardise rankings, and careers. Sport psychologists can assist in exploring why someone is choking and also provide strategies to resolve the psychological processes contributing to choking.
- Personal issues outside sport – Things in everyday life like relationships, work, stress, etc can create problems in your sport or music performance. It is very common that performance can be negatively or positively affected by factors that seem indirect and separate. If things seem to be falling apart in life, anxiety, lack of focus, fatigue, irregular sleeping and eating and other factors can take away from your ability to achieve peak performance. A sport psychologist can assist in exploring life balance and help you to develop skills so you can leave the rest of the world behind when stepping into your performance environment.
- Team or personal conflict – If conflict exists within a team, or between coach/management/public and athlete, a sport psychologist can act as a mediator to resolve such issues so people can cooperate and move on. Sometimes communication breakdowns lead to such conflicts and communication skills training can be effective in resolving such incidents from happening in the future.
- Injuries – Injuries are inevitable in life. In sport, injuries can be devastating both physically and emotionally due to the implications of being “out” for prolonged periods. If you are struggling with an injury recovery process or transition into sport retirement due to injury, a sport psychologist can assist you in developing a plan and strategies to cope.
- Getting dropped or cut from the team – Whether we get cut from a team at tryouts, or after many seasons, it is tough on the self-esteem and motivation. Getting dropped can seem like the end of the world but does not have to represent the end if we have support and the right attitude. If you have recently been cut or did not make a team or spot in sport or music, and are struggling to recover, a sport psychologist can help to cope emotionally and move forward.
- Sleep and nutrition – Regular sleep and healthy eating are critical health requirements for achieving consistent peak performance and improvement. These behaviours increase energy, concentration, and effort. It can be hard to keep regimented sleep and eating behaviours when travelling or when life circumstances change, so having a plan to anticipate these challenges can help. Sometimes, learning relaxation techniques and utilising relaxing things like music, can improve sleep. Under stress and nerves prior to competition or performance, is when you are likely to struggle with sleep the most. A sport psychologist can assist with improving access to sleep.
- Drink and drugs – Drug use for performance enhancement has been very public in the media recently. And drug-testing technology has improved making it more affordable and prevalent. All too often drinking and recreational drug use lead to inappropriate public behaviour that puts sports in disrepute. Unfortunately, all too often this behaviour includes physical and sexual violence. Drug use and alcohol can lead to performance deficits due to the effects they have on the mind and body. Education and smart choices are important to balance life and sport. In the case of performance enhancing drugs, if you or someone you know is jeopardizing their health and future in sport for short term gains by using drugs, they are not only cheating but probably lacking in self-respect. It is time to step back, reflect and make a change. A sport psychologist can help to reduce or eliminate alcohol and drug use.
- Retirement from sport or music – If you are done with an elite or a competitive career, and want to simply enjoy your sport; or are retiring completely from your field, there can be emotional and psychological challenges similar to grief and loss. Counseling from a sport psychologist during this transition can support you through a time that may leave you feeling isolated, empty and lost. Social support and ways to stay involved in some degreem can help substantially in reducing the negative effects of retirement from sport or music.
Exercise, Movement, Weight and Healthy Lifestyle
- Losing weight and eating a healthy diet – Sport psychologists don’t just assist elite competitors, they also work with everyday people whose aims with exercise and movement (yoga for instance) are to lose weight and eat healthy. Goal setting, emotion regulation, mental skills, and motivation can help anyone achieve difficult behavioural changes. Long-term gains come from sustained discipline and effort and some short-term discomfort. A sport psychologist understands this difficult first step in change and can assist you with loosing weight and eating healthy.
- Sticking with a new program/lifestyle choice – Setting goals is easy, intended effort is easy, however getting goals is difficult and actual effort takes work. If you have tried many times to make a change and improve your health through lifestyle changes like regular exercise but have failed, a sport psychologist may be the answer to sustained change and long-term gains. Sometimes it’s deciding what type of exercise is appropriate, how to manage time, how to gain social support, and how to reward oneself for sustained effort.
- Changing a habit – If bad habits are stopping you from leading a healthy lifestyle and getting regular exercise, and you think you have tried everything under the sun to stop, it may be time to call on the experts. A psychologist can assess and train you in reducing bad habits that are stopping you from reaching goals.
- Exercise and movement for mental health and energy – Exercise is paramount in reducing and treating anxiety and depression. Even if you are not clinically anxious or depressed, nerves and low mood and loss of concentration and energy can be combatted by regular exercise. The human body was made to move – and move a lot. No wonder the more our society becomes stagnant, the more we experiences psychological disorder. Exercise creates balance and allows us to express and process emotion and stress. It can prevent us from “losing it” or feeling overwhelmed. If you are not moving that body regularly and are suffering, give exercise a fair chance to improve your life. Exercise has social, emotional, cognitive and physiological benefits that cannot be gained in other ways (eg medication). If you think sport and exercise is not for you, you probably have not found the right form of movement to suit your personal needs.
I have played sport all my life, first participating in soccer and then Ultimate. I played in 4 world championships and have travelled around the world with sport including being recruited for a season in Vancouver, Canada. Currently, I play ultimate Frisbee and am a vocalist for a musical group in Brisbane. I have also coached junior national teams, club teams and university teams.
This experience gives me a unique perspective and insight into the life, pressures and sacrifice of elite sportspeople, and assists me in connecting with and helping people improve performance.
My approach to working with sport people is focused on a few important principle targets for success. The first is enjoyment and flow. I believe the experiential qualities of sport keep us motivated and involved. The emotional drive comes from the feeling of performing when everything is just clicking.
Next target is confidence, found through improvement/effort. I am a big believer in attention skills as a way to promote the flow experiences and increase mental toughens.
Finally I take a holistic individualised approach to the person rather than the problem. I feel this approach leads to long-term mental toughness and solutions. People come to me to solve specific issues, which are stopping them from achieving greatness and making changes. I utilise a mix of solution-focused and holistic approaches when working with people on performance issues, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as well as Mindfulness-based approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for the outdoors and the human journey to find meaning and happiness. He has spent time as a sport coach, mentor, activity facilitator, and academic tutor, including travelling overseas with youth sport teams as a chaperone, coach, and counsellor, and finds it extremely rewarding to provide his clients, regardless of their background, with a safe place to talk.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.